“Jesus Christ is the light of the world, the light no darkness can overcome.”
These are the words we sing every Wednesday evening in my Church. At first, I thought we were just quoting Scripture and preparing our hearts to focus on Christ. I had no idea about the history behind this song. Last summer, I attended a conference for young Christians. It was life-changing for a number of reasons, one of which was the fourteen words written above that we sing in the evening. That song dates back to the earliest church in Rome, the Christians that underwent unspeakable persecution. This song was sung by these early Christians in the evening, even as their brothers and sisters in Christ were being burned alive in the streets and used as torches. Can you even imagine? As the world went dark, the Christians burned, and still the church sang on: Jesus Christ is the light of the world, the light no darkness can overcome.
This is what it really means to be on fire for Christ. It is not a catchphrase. It is not a rallying cry. It is not a platitude or a cliché. It doesn’t mean that we should feel happy about following Jesus. It doesn’t mean that the Spirit set our hearts ablaze with feelings of passion. That is how the modern church uses it, but that is not what it means. To be on fire for Christ really means that we should be willing to die for the Light of the World. It means that we must remember that the darkness has not overcome it, even in our darkest hours. We should never use this phrase flippantly. We should never forget what it really means.
I think most of us have gotten to a point, unconsciously perhaps, where we would be more willing to die for Christ than we are to live for him. Dying for Jesus seems noble, it would likely make the news, and there is a definite end to the suffering. But living for Jesus, well that’s another issue entirely. That requires facing the uncomfortable truths and teachings of the Scriptures. It requires honest repentance. It requires trudging through the daily monotonies of life that no one sees or praises. It requires turning the other cheek, staying loyal to a marriage even if the “spark is gone,” taking the log out of our own eyes, curbing our angry or lustful thoughts, giving away our wealth to the poor, and doing good works. It means suffering. Daily.
Living for Jesus sounds nice and pious, but in reality it’s the most difficult task in the world. Living for Jesus doesn’t actually imply the happy-go-lucky ideas that most churches spread. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer went so far as to say “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Living for Jesus actually means dying for him every single day. It means putting our Old Adam (the sinful part of ourselves) to death every day and letting the New Adam (Christ in us) take the wheel. It’s painful because it means saying no to our sinful desires. It means that “be yourself” is no longer an acceptable life motto in a theological sense.
This is the difference between the theology of glory and the theology of suffering. The theology of glory tells us that with Christ, everything’s going to be alright. In a temporal sense, nothing could be further from the truth! Jesus didn’t sugarcoat suffering by any means. He suffered, more than anyone, and he warned us that we would do the same. I think however what we miss when we read about Christ’s suffering is that it most certainly did not begin nor end at the cross for him. He suffered from the very beginning, and I believe his suffering was unique for a number of reasons, including because he knew what the world was supposed to be like, and he knew just how far we’d wandered. As fallen humans we have a vague sense that the world is not what it should be, but we “see in a mirror dimly.” We can’t really grasp what perfection must be like. But Jesus knew exactly what it was like, and it made his stomach turn to see our suffering.
This is what we miss when we think generically of suffering. We think of the martyrs or those who’ve lost loved ones. We think of the people who have made great sacrifices, thereby turning even the theology of the cross into a way of glory, patting ourselves on the back for all that we’ve sacrificed for Jesus. The theology of glory focuses on the self. My relationship with Christ. My good works. My status with God. But it’s never been about my anything. It’s always been about Christ. His suffering. His ultimate work on the cross. His status as Lamb of God, Redeemer, Mediator, Savior, Sacrifice. The theology of the cross finds meaning in suffering. In Christ, we find meaning even in these sufferings that we cannot communicate to others. You can tell someone that you’re suffering spiritually, but no one can understand the pain of a tortured soul except the one in misery.
But that’s the beauty of Christian suffering. We never walk alone. Christ walks with us every step of the way and understands our suffering better than we do. There is always meaning in what we go through, even if we can’t see it. I hope to spend the next few weeks delving into the topic of Christian suffering. I think it is terribly misunderstood and often gets overlooked by churches. It’s an uncomfortable topic because it requires coming to terms with the fact that God, who is supposedly both good and all-powerful, allows us to suffer. This question has driven too many people away from the faith. The problem is not that we have misunderstand God’s character, but rather the purpose and necessity of suffering. Somehow the ancient church was able to find hope even as their brothers and sisters burned. Perhaps if we learn what this suffering means, we can truly be on fire for Christ again. If we can find meaning in dying for Christ every day, maybe we can find meaning in living for him again.